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Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance. There seems to be lots of people who love one but not the other. In most classification schemes and in my book (The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Genre Blends), urban fantasy is technically a subgenre of fantasy, and paranormal romance is a subgenre of romance (just as the names imply!), but the reading reality has always seemed more fluid to me. I read a lot of series that fall under one or another of those subgenre headings, and I’ve never been particularly fussy about what label gets printed on the spine. When I was in charge of ordering paperbacks for a library, I was forced to care about this issue, as I would be the one that would decide whether a book went on the “ROMANCE” spinner or the “SF/FANTASY” spinner. And believe it or not I found it surprisingly difficult at times. Sometimes I would violently disagree with the way the publisher had chosen to market a series. Maybe it was a book that had a cover and a subject heading that screamed romance and I thought it would appeal as much (or more) to fantasy fans. Maybe the book was all moody urban fantasy on the outside but all steamy romance between the covers. It was then that I started to think about these books all living on more of a spectrum: all books that shared a real-world, present day fantasy landscape and almost always included a crime/puzzle/mystery plot line. The difference was simply in the amount of romance.
So what’s the deal? Why does a little angsty longing or even steamy sexytimes kick a book out of one genre into another? As a reader of both romance and fantasy I’m a little confused, but as a reader’s advisor I guess I get it: it all comes down to where the author is focusing their narrative energies. Is the point of the story getting the hero and heroine past a conflict to their happy ending? Romance. If the point of the story solving the crime (small book arc) or vanquishing the big bad evil (long series arc) and romance is just something that happens (or doesn’t happen) along the way? Urban fantasy. Paranormal romance is also much more likely to focus on a new couple every book, while urban fantasy follows a hero or heroine through their waxing and relationships. Once an urban fantasy has given a hero and heroine their happy ending, an author can continue their story, but it will probably include conflicts that challenge their happiness. Let’s face it, no one really wants to read book after book about a happy couple (well, maybe Eve and Roark from J.D. Robb, but I’ve even cooled on them lately). Relationship building is much more conducive to plot, bringing conflict and drama. Relationship sustaining is much harder to make interesting.
So it looks like the main criteria for separating paranormal romance from urban fantasy is the focus on romantic love. Some readers like to have this element in their stories, some never EVER want even a whiff of romance. Lots of readers fall somewhere in the middle. Luckily there are books to satisfy any taste. Charting them made one thing obvious to me, which is that lots of paranormal romances have excellent worldbulding and lots of urban fantasies have a swoon-worthy romantic storyline. So personally, I think there should be more cross-pollination between these fanbases.
I grabbed 100 popular series that are considered either paranormal romance or urban fantasy (mainly looking at lists in Goodreads) and decided I would try to chart them as to their appeal to a romance reader and their appeal to an urban fantasy reader. My only criteria were that they be set in our world (no secondary world or epic fantasy) and that it was well-known or well-regarded by fans of the genre (GoodReads averages hovering near 4). When judging their appeal for fantasy and romance, I polled some big readers I know to help me out. We came to a general consensus, but of course your mileage may vary. From that original 100, there were some that none of us had read and which it was too hard for me to get a solid read on their appeal from reviews. There were some that were more mystery than they were either fantasy or romance. And there was a saturation point where the chart was getting too crowded to be readable. I ended up with about 75 entries. Overwhelmingly these ended up being series, and that’s where the second big decision came: judge by the book or by the series? Books like the Anita Blake series that take a dramatic shift in tone are hard to place (I adore the first few, read the next few and went “huh, okay”, read a few more and went “WHOA”). Lots of great urban fantasy series have a romantic arc that builds over time. For example, the Kate Daniels series is one where the first book or two barely has a romance angle at all (although the potential is there from the beginning – just thinking about “Here, kitty, kitty” makes me smile). By the most recent volume there is a much stronger emphasis on the romantic couple. Where to chart, then? I decided to try to think about these series as a whole, and whether the arc is appealing to romance fans, even if a particular book is less or more romantic.
Each series gets a rating of 1-10 for romance appeal, where a 10 would be a book that was hugely satisfying for romance readers, with a heroine and hero that you root for and a believable happily ever after. 1 on that romance axis would be a book that had no romance or so little that it doesn’t really impact the story. On the fantasy axis, again 1-10, the highest ranking of 10 would be a book with amazing worldbuilding, a landscape that lives and breathes with magic. Conversely, a 1 would be a book that has a very small fantasy appeal, where the fantasy in the story is not very important to the story. I’ve included a copy of the spreadsheet here for those who prefer to look at text and numbers rather than graphics and covers. Huge thanks to Alicia Ahlvers, Tamara Bevard, Kristi Chadwick, Stephanie Flinchbaugh, Shelley Hughes and Jessica Moyers, who all looks at the titles with me and contributed votes on where a series should fall.
|Title||Author||Series||Romance Appeal (1-10)||Fantasy Appeal (1-10)|
|Already Dead||Charlie Huston||Joe Pitt||1||6|
|Angel’s Ink||Jocelynn Drake||The Asylum’s Tales||6||8|
|Angels’ Blood||Nalini Singh||Guild Hunter||8||6,5|
|Bitten||Kelley Armstrong||Women of the Otherworld||5,5||6, 5, 7|
|Blood Rights||Kristen Painter||Comarre||8||3, 5|
|Child of Fire||Harry Connolly||Twenty Palaces||1||6|
|Cry Wolf||Patricia Briggs||Alpha & Omega||6||6,5|
|Dark Currents||Jacqueline Carey||Agent of Hel||3||7|
|Dark Lover||J. R. Ward||Black Dagger Brotherhood||8||6|
|Dark Prince||Christine Feehan||Dark||7||4|
|The Darkest Night||Gena Showalter||Lords of the Underworld||7||3|
|Darkfever||Karen Marie Moning||Fever||7,6||8,7|
|Dead Until Dark||Charlaine Harris||Sookie Stackhouse||3, 4||6, 8|
|Dead Witch Walking||Kim Harrison||The Hollows||3, 4, 5||8|
|The Devil You Know||Mike Carey||Felix Castor||1||7|
|Dirty Magic||Jaye Wells||Prospero’s War||2,2||7,8|
|Discount Armageddon||Seanan Mcguire||InCryptid||2,4||8|
|A Discovery of Witches||Deborah Harkness||All Souls||6, 7||6|
|Dragon Bound||Thea Harrison||Elder Races||8,9||4|
|Fated||Benedict Jacka||Alex Versus||1||7|
|First Grave on the Right||Darynda Jones||Charley Davidson||4||5|
|Grave Witch||Kalayna Price||Alex Craft||2||8|
|Guilty Pleasures||Laurell K. Hamilton||Anita Blake||5,6||7|
|Halfway to the Grave||Jeaniene Frost||Night Huntress||6, 8||7, 5|
|Hard Magic||Laura Anne Gilman||Paranormal Scene Investigations||3||7|
|Hounded||Kevin Hearne||Iron Druid||2||8|
|House of the Rising Sun||Kristen Painter||Crescent City||2,3||8|
|How to Marry a Millionaire Vampire||Kerrelyn Sparks||Love at Stake||7||1|
|The Hum and the Shiver||Alex Bledsoe||Tufa||4||6, 7|
|A Hunger Like No Other||Kresley Cole||Immortals||9||3|
|Ill Wind||Rachel Caine||Weather Warden||4||7|
|Kiss of Midnight||Lara Adrian||Midnight Breed||7||2|
|A Kiss of Shadows||Laurell K. Hamilton||Merry Gentry||7||5|
|Kitty and the Midnight Hour||Carrie Vaughn||Kitty Norville||3||8,7|
|Libriomancer||Jim C. Hines||Ex Libris||3, 3||8, 9|
|Magic Bites||Ilona Andrews||Kate Daniels||6,7||9,9|
|Magic to the Bone||Devon Monk||Allie Beckstrom||4||8|
|Midnight Riot||Ben Aaronovitch||Peter Grant||1, 1||8, 9|
|Mind Games||Carolyn Crane||Disillusionists||6||5|
|Moon Called||Patricia Briggs||Mercy Thompson||5,4||6,7|
|Nice Girls Don’t Have Fangs||Molly Harper||Jane Jameson||5||3|
|Night Pleasures||Sherrilyn Kenyon||Dark Hunter||5, 6||8, 6|
|Nightlife||Rob Thurman||Cal Leandros||3||6|
|No Hero||Jonathan Wood||MI-37||1||7|
|Pleasure Unbound||Larissa Ione||Demonica||6, 8||5|
|Pride Mates||Jennifer Ashley||Shifters Unbound||6||3|
|A Quick Bite||Lynsay Sands||Argeneau||7||2|
|Red-Headed Stepchild||Jaye Wells||Sabina Kane||4||7|
|The Restorer||Amanda Stevens||Graveyard Queen||6||4|
|Rosemary and Rue||Seanan McGuire||October Daye||3,2, 5||8,8, 9|
|Sandman Slim||Richard Kadrey||Sandman Slim||1||8|
|Skinwalker||Faith Hunter||Jane Yellowrock||2, 3||9, 7|
|Slave to Sensation||Nalini Singh||Psy/Changeling||8, 9||8, 7|
|Some Girls Bite||Chloe Neill||Chicagoland Vampires||3||8|
|Something from the Nightside||Simon R. Green||Nightside||1||6|
|Spider’s Bite||Jennifer Estep||Elemental Assassin||4||8|
|Storm Front||Jim Butcher||Dresden Files||1, 2, 2||9,8|
|Succubus Blues||Richelle Mead||Georgina Kincaid||6||5|
|Sunshine||Robin McKinley||3, 5||7, 8|
|The Taken||Vicki Pettersson||Celestial Blues||2, 4||7, 5|
|Tempting Danger||Eileen Wilks||Lupi||8||3|
|Tempting the Beast||Lora Leigh||Breeds||8||2|
|Tiger Eye||Marjorie Liu||Dirk & Steel||7||7|
|Touch the Dark||Karen Chance||Cassandra Palmer||3||7|
|Undead and Unwed||MaryJanice Davidson||Undead||6||1,2|
|Unholy Ghosts||Stacia Kane||Downside Ghosts||3||5|
|War for the Oaks||Emma Bull||3, 4||9, 8|
|White Lies||Jayne Anne Krentz||Arcana||8||2|
|Written In Red||Anne Bishop||Others||2||8|
|You Slay Me||Katie MacAlister||Aisling Grey||7||3|
No matter whether you agree with where I placed your favorite series, I hope this makes it obvious that there are plenty of books on either side of the imaginary dotted line that splits the chart that readers could enjoy.
I love this chart. There is a lot of cross over right now with ParaRomance being a huge seller. Sometimes it’s hard to judge if a book is more romance than fantasy or a good mix.
Thank you! I agree there is a ton of crossover in appeal. The marketing (cover, blurb, etc.) doesn’t always give the reader a clear idea of the romance mix, unfortunately. I end up trying a lot of series on for size.
This is brilliant! I love the idea of a spreadsheet on fantasy fiction – what a way to bring it down to earth. I could have a few heated debates on where some series fall, but I would just say that it seems the male authors are a bit shy of expressing their warm and fuzzy feelings – most are firmly in the bottom right corner keeping well away from romance!
Thank you! I started this as a spreadsheet and had SUCH a hard time figuring where to put some series. It’s not about counting sex scenes, but about how a book feels to read, right? So my compromise was to have some friends and colleagues who read these genres also contribute where they think a book falls. We didn’t reach consensus, but it did help! And yes, I think in all genres it is more likely for a woman to include a love story element into her plots. The women in the books on the far bottom right books (by dudes) are more likely to be dead or rescue bait. But there are some good female characters there too, just no emphasis on romantic entanglements (yet). Thanks for the comment!
As a reader of both Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance and being a Librarian, this chart is FABULOUS! It is often very difficult to figure out where to put some of these books. Publishers and readers often have different definitions of romance. Thank you!
Thank you! I’m so glad you liked it!
I absolutely love this! I completely agree that these “genres” should really be considered as operating on a fluid continuum between fantasy and romance. You might be interested; I recently published an academic paper that goes into some of the problems of classifying this genre: http://refractory.unimelb.edu.au/2014/06/26/uf-mclennon/ And I’ve given a conference paper with pretty diagrams with arrows trying to explain the genre relationships… Though I wish it had occurred to me to use this style of infographic! It looks great. And so handy for giving reading recommendations.
Thank you so much! Your article was fascinating as well. There are so many hangups about what to call these books, and NO AGREEMENT among academics, librarians or even fans. You make a great point about the serial and adaptive nature of these books. These long series, sort of like episodic TV in a lot of ways, have an opportunity to tell lots of different types of stories, dabbling in other genres and story styles. It’s part of what keeps us reading them!
Thanks. Great Idea very helpful. My reading preferences lean towards urban fantasy not paranormal romance. I really like the Harry Dresden and Felix Castor books- no romance. Also liked the other world books by Kelly Armstong – some romance. But I read the Anita Blake books. They started as paranormal fantasy then more why beyond romance all the the to paranormal erotica. Not really what I wanted.
Thanks, Scott! I obviously don’t mind a little (or a lot) or romance, but I think it is helpful to know going in what you’re going to get. I don’t disagree about Anita Blake. I enjoyed the series start and then just couldn’t believe the direction she went. I think she is now more popular in general, but it seemed like a switcheroo. Usually when I recommend urban fantasy without the romance, my go to author is Jim Butcher, whom you also seem to like (have you tried the audiobooks? AWESOME). If you like him, you should try Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid books. I also enjoy Benedict Jacka’s Alex Versus series. You could go British with the police procedural/urban fantasy blend of Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series. And if you are willing to dip your toes into epic fantasy Robert Jackson Bennett’s Divine Cities has got a touch of mystery going on. You might also want to play with the genreblender (http://blender.genrify.com) and blend fantasy and mystery. Just avoid the books that also have romance (lots will say ROMANCE all in caps, a little will be lowercase). Happy reading!
I have read urban fantasy and found this chart a very good one.
I know this article is a few years old, but I think it’s really great! I just posted it in a few FB reading groups that focus on Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance. I think this spectrum really helps explain why some people love a UF or PR series and some people don’t. I love both genres and find that I’m smack dab in the middle of this spectrum! Would love for this to be updated with more current PRs and UFs! But really appreciate the effort that went into creating the ratings the first time around and understand it would not be an easy update with more recent series! Thanks for this article… really helps clarify the genres!
Thanks, Rebecca! I’ve let the Genrify site go dormant for a while now, but I love that people keep finding this article. I do think about updating it, so thank you for expressing that interest. Maybe one day!
What are your fav genres between romance suspense, romance thriller, urban fantasy or paranormal? Any franchises worth re reading or youd like to see on screen . Where do you think todays readers crave on the spectrum (less fantasy or lusting it)?
Personally? My favorite genres change depending on mood. I have been reading a lot of romantic suspense lately. I’m also a big re-reader, so I revisit favorites all the time. Currently, I’m in the middle of a re-read of the Hidden Legacies series by Ilona Andrews, which I think is a stellar example of blending fantasy, action, and romance. I haven’t seen as many blockbuster fantasy and romance blended series catch fire in recent years, although some of the biggest authors are still putting out new installments in their series. Contemporary romance seems to be the dominant sub-genre in romance right now. These things go in cycles, though, so who knows what will be popular next? I’m actually a little sad that urban fantasy as a sub-genre is pretty quiet these days. That mix of fantasy and mystery and often a dash of romance will always be something I enjoy when it is done well.